The metaphorical power of NASA’s first all-women spacewalk

A lot of women can relate to astronauts Christina Koch, right, and, Jessica Meir.
A lot of women can relate to astronauts Christina Koch, right, and, Jessica Meir.
Image: AP/NASA
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NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir have made history with the world’s first-ever all-female spacewalk.

Koch and Meir stepped outside the International Space Station at 7:38am today, and NASA has been live-streaming the spacewalk on YouTube. It has attracted plenty of attention from those who are excited to see women in science crossing yet another barrier, and are also attuned to the significance of the moment for girls and young women. “There are a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people that look like them and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell,” Koch said at a recent news conference.

There’s no doubt that the sight of two women getting down to work outside the ISS, hovering above the glowing blue Earth, is meaningful for young people who remain hungry for female role models. “You can’t be what you don’t see” is a common refrain on the importance of diverse representation in science, tech, and beyond.

But there’s another reason the spacewalk has resonated with so many people. The story of the first all-female spacewalk—including NASA’s botched attempt at passing the milestone earlier this year—doubles as a metaphor for what it’s like to be a woman full of ambition in 2019.

Why NASA canceled the all-female spacewalk in March

Back in March, the news cycle was similarly abuzz at the prospect of the first all-female spacewalk, set to be carried out by Koch and another astronaut, Anne McClain. But shortly before the big day, NASA announced a change in plans. It turned out that the space agency only had one spacesuit torso available in size medium, the size that both Koch and McClain needed. So Koch wore the suit, and Nick Hague took McClain’s place.

As the New York Times notes, “For some observers, the change underscored the challenges faced by women in the space program and other fields where equipment has historically been designed with men in mind. Women were not admitted into the astronaut program until 1978, and an American woman did not fly into space until Sally Ride did so in 1983. (Two Soviet women preceded her.) On Oct. 11, 1984, Kathryn D. Sullivan became the first American woman to perform a spacewalk.” Women astronauts have since made inroads, but remain in the minority; as Quartz reporter Tim Fernholz notes, “only 12 of the 38 currently active astronauts are women.”

While NASA’s last-minute swap was a safety issue, the snafu also seemed to perfectly encapsulate the variety of structural and environmental difficulties faced by women working in fields where men remain the norm. A problem with clothing size can reveal something deeper about an organization’s biases. Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, for example, memorably described how her unit director announced that the six women on her team would not receive leather jackets, while some 120 men would, “because there were not enough women in the organization to justify placing an order.” The real issue wasn’t the leather jackets, but how the director’s thinking reflected the sexist, hyper-masculine culture at Uber. There, women were marginalized, with their repeated attempts to report instances of discrimination considered a low priority.

In other cases, the issue at hand isn’t clothing or equipment, but the fact that frigid air-conditioning settings in offices, based on a formula that takes only men’s metabolic rates into account, makes women uncomfortable and less productive. Or the ways that many corporate cultures treat men who yell as effective leaders, but treat crying—a display of emotion that’s more common for women, for both biological and social reasons—as a sign of weakness. NASA’s spacesuit-size problem, in other words, made waves because women are deeply familiar with what it’s like to try to make headway in a world that’s been designed for men.

The meaning of Meir and Koch’s spacewalk

But if the scrapped spacewalk struck a chord because it reflected so many women’s frustrations with the obstacles they’ve faced in their careers, today’s triumph serves as a heartening metaphor for the future we’re working toward.

Part of Koch and Meir’s mission today is the replacement of a faulty battery charger. For them, it’s a humdrum task, although they are well aware of its significance. “What we’re doing now shows all the work that went in for the decades prior, all of the women that worked to get us where we are today,” Meir said at a news conference before the spacewalk. “I think the nice thing for us is we don’t even really think about it on a daily basis, it’s just normal. We’re part of the team, we’re doing this work as an efficient team working together with everybody else, so it’s really nice to see how far that we’ve come.”

But to many others, their mission is extraordinary simply because it’s two women doing it. Women have gone on spacewalks before, after all. What we haven’t seen is women opening the hatch and stepping out into darkness together.

Granted, it’s still remarkable to see a woman who’s the only person of her gender in the room—or, as the case may be, in outer space. The image can be empowering. (See, for example, this week’s widely-circulated image of US House speaker Nancy Pelosi standing up at a table full of men, pointing a finger at president Donald Trump.)

But stories and pictures of women carving out paths on their own in the midst of male-dominated fields can also play into the cultural trope of the “exceptional woman”—the Amelia Earharts or Marie Curies of the world, so unique in their courage, intelligence, and strength that their respective fields had no choice but to make room for them. The danger of this kind of narrative is that it fails to sufficiently challenge the status quo. It’s fairly easy to make space for a tiny handful of powerful women while keeping sexist norms in place. It’s a lot harder to overhaul an entire culture so that all women—along with people from other marginalized communities—are empowered to pursue, and succeed in, the careers of their choice.

That’s why it’s so exciting to see the video of Koch and Meir working together, rotating in and out of darkness. (On the ISS, astronauts see between 15 and 16 sunrises and sunsets each day.) Meanwhile, another woman, Stephanie Wilson, the NASA spacewalk’s coordinator at the Mission Control Center, assists them from some 220 miles below. It’s a reminder of what’s possible when women collaborate with one another, and what it might look like to live in a world where such situations are so common as to be unremarkable. But we’re not there yet. For now, women devoted to ushering true equality into existence may feel a bit like astronauts themselves: Excited to be outside the realm of the familiar, sometimes working together in the dark, sometimes in the sunlight, which is only a few minutes away.